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The politically important group of Catholics that could take center stage at the VP debate

Catholics still matter, just not the way you think.

CREDIT: AP Photo
CREDIT: AP Photo

Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, when compared to the last week’s fireworks-filled presidential debate, will probably be boring. But for at least one group of Americans, the event does carry a bit of, shall we say, spiritual tension: Both Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence are Catholic, though they hail from two distinctly different religious tribes.

Kaine, a Jesuit-educated liberal who is progressive on LGBT issues, is firmly rooted in the American Catholicism’s left-wing, whereas Pence, a self-described “evangelical Catholic,” is an unapologetic theological conservative infamous for supporting Indiana’s discriminatory “religious liberty” law.

Pence and Kaine have been equally public about their faith, speaking regularly about how it influences their politics. That primes Tuesday night’s debate to be something of a theological throw down—with both men gearing up to win over the coveted “Catholic vote.”

But who exactly will they be trying to appeal to? This question comes up during virtually every presidential election, when most major publications — ThinkProgress very much included — write a deep dive on the so-called “Catholic vote,” hoping to decipher which candidate the legions of Catholic faithful will support on Election Day. The logic is usually rooted in the fact that Catholics currently make up around 21 percent of the population according to PRRI — i.e., the third-largest religious group in the country after evangelical Protestants (which technically encompasses multiple traditions) and the religiously unaffiliated (who don’t vote in high numbers). Hypothetically, if a candidate could appeal to a broad swath of these voters — ostensibly by tapping into some incontrovertible “Catholic” idea or proposal — she or he could lock up an election.

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Alas, all that assumes Catholics are ideologically uniform enough to be swayed by a specific set of policy ideas or ideals, which is a lie. Catholics stopped voting as a bloc long ago.

Catholics, who were an oppressed religious minority for quite some time, once exhibited dogged loyalty to a single (Democratic) party as a means of survival. But Catholicism’s theological diversity — at least at the lay level — slowly transformed the American flock into an increasingly bifurcated group, politically speaking. By the time the 2004 election rolled around, Catholics started resembling the general populous: although they are generally more progressive than the average American on most major policy issues, Catholics are roughly split down the middle in terms of party affiliation during a presidential election, with only 5 to 10 percent overall waffling back and forth depending on the year.

“…All that assumes Catholics are uniform enough to be swayed by a specific set of policy ideas or ideals, which is a lie.”

Much of this stems from raw demographic change. The Catholic Church in the United States is increasingly Hispanic, a group that disproportionately favors the Democratic Party because of its support for immigration reform, among other reasons. Meanwhile, many conservative white Catholic voters remain tied to the Republican Party, in part because of its firm opposition to abortion.

Thus, most assessments of the “Catholic vote” take these two camps—which represent the majority of American Catholicism—as a given, and ultimately zero in on the 5 to 10 percent of Catholics who seem to be persuadable, a sort of swing-vote-within-a-swing-vote. And while there is a lot of diversity within Catholicism, the group that shifts election results appears to have one defining characteristic: they’re mostly white.

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In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama won Catholics overall, besting John McCain 54 percent to 45 percent among those who call the pope Holy Father, according to Pew research. Fast-forward to 2012, and Obama once again took the Catholic vote (and the election overall), but by a much smaller margin: he won 50 percent of U.S. Catholics, just enough to edge past rival Mitt Romney, who claimed 48 percent.

What changed? It certainly wasn’t a change of heart among Hispanic Catholics, 75 percent of whom backed Obama—three percent more than did in 2008. Rather, the shift, according to exit polls, was among white Catholics: Obama won just 40 percent of the group to Romney’s 59 percent, or a full 7 percent less than he got in 2008.

“Depending on which poll you listened to in August, Clinton had anywhere from a 23 to 27 point lead over Trump among Catholics.”

Which brings us back to Tuesday’s debate. If Kaine and Pence do end up touting their Catholic bona fides, their messages probably won’t be directed at all Catholics. Instead, both candidates are likely to target their religious rhetoric at a very specific and relatively small sliver of the Catholic electorate: the moveable white Catholic middle.

Kaine may have a bit of an edge here. Depending on which poll you listened to in August, Clinton had anywhere from a 23 to 27 point lead over Trump among Catholics. But things seem to have tightened a bit since then. According to a BRS poll conducted on behalf of Catholics for Choice and released on Monday, Clinton has a 6 point lead among likely Catholic voters overall, but is trailing among white Catholics—Trump leads Clinton by 13 points among white Catholics, 50 percent to 37 percent. If Clinton wants to run up the score, Kaine will need to find a way to appeal to this group.

Unfortunately for Kaine and Pence, however, a dearth of research on this topic means it’s not immediately clear what animates this subset of the Catholic electorate, or even exactly who they are. Common wisdom typically assumes they belong to the family of ever-shrinking blue-collar “Reagan Democrats”—e.g., the often culturally conservative union members in places such as Youngstown, Ohio. But the reality is that the spread of white Catholic persuadables is probably more diverse than that, making it difficult to target with specific religious messages during a debate—not to mention robust “Catholic outreach” efforts once common in presidential campaigns.

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Besides, as important as this group is, tonight may be one of the last times their concerns take center stage at a major debate. American Catholicism’s growing Hispanic population—combined with an already sizable number of progressive white Catholics—is almost certainly going to push the Catholic vote leftward over time, eventually eclipsing the relevance of moveable middle.

Of course, a Trump presidency, which vows to curtail immigration in various ways, could slow this process, but that would require Trump winning in the first place. That’s going to be difficult to do without Catholics on his side—white, Hispanic, or otherwise.